In 1966, Dr. Seuss’s classic picture book was transformed into an animated TV masterpiece by Warner Brothers cartoonist Chuck Jones. The seasonal fixture featured the amiable voice of Boris Karloff as the rhyming narrator and the title character. It still holds up today as delightful family entertainment. Indeed, the work of Dr. Seuss cries out for animation. I’m not so sure, however, that all children’s stories are best suited to live-action, theatrical-length productions.
Watching director Ron Howard’s attempt to bring the Grinch to life, I kept thinking, “Look at all the money.” The sets, the costumes, and the makeup – it had to cost a fortune. But just as money doesn’t buy happiness (so I’m told) neither does it buy charm or class. Jim Carrey, as the spiteful Grinch, has some terrific moments and his rubber-like body is a cartoon in itself, but it is difficult for him to roam around a film without spreading some coarseness here and there. It is reported that the widow of Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel exercised veto power over the script, ejecting many of the bathroom jokes. “That’s not the Seuss world, not at all.” She said. But the 79-year-old Mrs. Geisel didn’t catch all of the objectionable material. And neither will the major portion of the audience the film is aimed at – little ones.
At one point, merry-makers are pictured through a snow-outlined window, partying and placing keys in a fish bowl. The joke is aimed at an older crowd, familiar with the sexual game of couples at a party exchanging keys and going home with someone else’s automobile – and date. I suppose the outlandishness of seeing guileless Whoville dwellers participating in such a hedonistic sexual game may be humorous, but it is also a vulgar and cheap gag. Mr. Carrey speaks a few other inappropriate jokes. Mr. Carrey is a crude version of Jerry Lewis. He could have taken a lesson or two from Jack Lemmon’s portrayal of a cartoonish villain in “The Great Race.” As the fiendish Professor Fate, Lemmon was found hysterical by little ones and grown-ups – and without crassness.
But these few loutish pranks aren’t the film’s biggest sin. It’s simply non-engaging. The little girl – Cindy Lou Who – has a moment where she has to warble a sentimental tune to help establish the plot. The scene is downright embarrassing. It’s not just that she can’t sing, which the producers must have thought was cute, but you’re sitting there not completely assured that she is going to remember all the words. Her performance reminded me of a small town church Christmas production, where parents sit anxiously in the pews hoping little Billy or Susan won’t suddenly go blank.
Christine Baranski does well as a Whoville native secretly in love with the Grinch since they were students in grade school. (Oh yeah, I bought that.) She is fun as a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Jessica Rabbit, but her fellow residents of Whoville are given little to do other than act as if they were pop-outs from a children’s drawing book. Anthony Hopkins also does a nice job as the narrator, occasionally chiming in with actual Seuss verse. But as a whole, the production is a bloated misfire, where way too many jokes fall flat. Now, I’m not suggesting that it won’t make money. It is one of the few holiday films parents can take the kids to.
Recently, I viewed the 30-minute Karloff cartoon-version of the Grinch tale, and I preferred it. In the Carrey version, the producers are very careful to make Christmas all about family love (Oh, how Hollywood would love to get Christ out of that Holiday name). In the animated version, the theme expresses the belief that peace doesn’t come from possessions, but from a joy within. I have no problem with that, as that’s where Christ resides if we are to know total contentment.
“Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is acceptable movie-going fare, but if you find yourselves stuck at home on a frosty December night, may I suggest a video party for the entire family. While the little ones are up, begin the evening with a batch of popcorn balls and the 30-minute “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Follow that with the claymation “The Little Drummer Boy,” then the animated “Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas,” and conclude with “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.” When the little ones are safely tucked in their beds, etc, teens and adults might enjoy “The Gathering,” about a dying man attempting to reunite his family for one last Christmas together. Ed Asner is Spencer Tracy-like, and Maureen Stapleton is downright luminous. This TV-made movie reinforces the importance of family and presents positive Christian images, including a believable prayer, the scripture reading of Jesus’ birth, and a child’s christening.